Trapped in Russian mall fire, children said farewell by phone


Firefighters extinguishing a fire at a shopping mall in Kemerovo, Russia, on March 25, 2018.
Firefighters extinguishing a fire at a shopping mall in Kemerovo, Russia, on March 25, 2018. PHOTO: REUTERS

MOSCOW (NYTIMES) - The theatre was packed, and children's movies were on the screens when the smoke began billowing in. When panicked audience members rushed for the exits, they found them blocked.

Many used their phones to plead for help, among them Victoria Pochankina, an 11-year-old girl on a class trip to the Siberian mall where a fire on Sunday killed at least 64 people, many of them children.

"She called me at 4.11pm the last time and told me that everything was in flames, and that the doors were blocked in the cinema, and that she cannot get out," Victoria's aunt, Yevgeniya Oganesyan, told the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda.

"I told her: Vika, take off your clothes and take them to your nose, breathe through your clothes," Oganesyan said. "She told me, 'Tell mummy that I loved her.'"

Russian authorities looking into the cause of the fire in Kemerovo, an industrial city of about half a million people more than 3,000km east of Moscow, on Monday (March 26) confirmed accounts that emergency exits at the mall had been blocked. They also said a security guard had switched off the fire alarm system.

Relatives recounted hauntingly similar stories of speaking by phone to loved ones trapped in the flames - but being unable to help them.

Alexander and Olga Lillevyali told Meduza.io, a news website, that their three daughters had been watching "Sherlock Gnomes" when smoke began to fill the theatre.

"My daughter kept calling me," Lillevyali said, with tears in his eyes. "I only shouted to her that she should try to get out of the hall, but I couldn't do anything. There was only fire in front of me." Igor Vostrikov, a local businessman, lost three children in the fire and also his wife, Yelena, and sister. They were all trapped in the theatre.

"Lena called from there," Vostrikov told Komsomolskaya Pravda. "She shouted, 'Help us, rescue us, we have been locked up." The fire started around 5 pm on the fourth floor of the mall, which includes a three-screen cinema complex, a skating rink and an entertainment centre for children.

Among those at the mall when the fire broke out were members of a class of schoolchildren there to celebrate the beginning of the spring school break. They were from Treshchyovsky, a little village 40km away from Kemerovo.

Six girls died in the fire. One of the girls, Vilena Chernikova, wrote, "I love myself and my family," in her last message on a social media website.

Vladimir Chernov, a deputy governor of the Kemerovo region, said the blaze had started in the children's entertainment room, where there was a trampoline with foam rubber that caught fire.

 
 

Videos posted on social media showed black smoke billowing from the mall's roof and windows, and people jumping from upper floors to escape the flames, with nothing below to cushion their fall.

Vladimir Puchkov, the emergency situations minister, said that six people were still missing and 13 were hospitalised, including a teenager in grave condition.

 

The Investigative Committee of Russia, a law enforcement agency, said that five people involved in the ownership and maintenance of the building had been detained. The agency, Russia's equivalent to the FBI, said that it had opened a criminal investigation into the cause of the fire, but that it was not clear whether anyone would be charged.

Relatives of the dead were infuriated that their loved ones had died behind blocked doors, and some faulted the authorities' response to the emergency.

"My mother came there immediately, perhaps three minutes later," Vostrikov said. "She begged to open this bloody cinema hall. They could have been rescued. One of the three cinema halls had its doors open and no one died there."

Some bodies were so badly burned that the authorities may be able to identify them only through DNA, the Russian health minister, Veronica Skvortsova, said at a news briefing. Officials have started taking samples from relatives.

The mall will be demolished, Puchkov said.